Photographing historical books at the Royal Society

Letter from Charles Babbage to J F W Herschel on 4 July 1814.
Letter from Charles Babbage to J F W Herschel on 4 July 1814.

On the 19th June I was given the opportunity to take some photos for Wikipedia of historical books that are part of the Royal Society’s collection. They’ve all been uploaded onto Wikimedia Commons under a CC-0 license as the original works are in the public domain, and hopefully they’ll make their way into articles over time. Here’s the description posted to WikiProject Royal Society by Johnbod:

(June 2014) As part of Wikipedia:WikiProject Royal Society a special photo session in the Royal Society Library in London has resulted in Commons:Category:Royal Society Library, with over 50 photos of their treasures, mostly 17th century manuscripts, including several of Herschel’s correspondence with Charles Babbage, Charles Blagden‘s diaries, the 1st edn of Sylva, by John Evelyn, one of the early minute books, Robert Boyle‘s notebooks etc, the manuscript fair copy of Newton’s Principia etc. Please add these to articles as appropriate. Many thanks to User:Mike Peel for coming from Manchester to take the photos!

What happens when you release photos on Wikimedia Commons?

The London Eye at night

I started making my photographs available on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons licence in 2006. Since then, I have uploaded over 3,500 photos to Commons, and I plan to upload many thousands more in the future. The main reason I started to upload my photos was to illustrate Wikipedia articles, and that’s still a big reason why I have continued doing so. However, only 16% of the images I’ve uploaded are currently used on the Wikimedia projects. So, why am I continuing to upload so many images?

My hope is that, in the long run, my photos will help preserve history. I hope that they will provide a record of the state of things today to others looking back at this time in the future, in a similar way to how we look at 50-year-old photos today. I want to make sure that those looking back on our history don’t have to worry about the copyright of those images, but can freely use them in their own projects.

However, there is a great shorter-term outcome that keeps me motivated to continue uploading my photographs: how people have been making use of my photos today in ways I never anticipated when uploading them. Some examples of this (amongst many others) include:

Michael Nielsen

  • In December 2007 I took a photo of the London Eye; I uploaded it to Commons a month later. I was taken aback in August 2008 when I got an email out of the blue from a couple who had recently gotten engaged on the London Eye – they’d found my photo and loved it so much that they had it printed on canvas. Due to a mistake by the delivery company, they accidentally received two copies of it – so they got in touch with me and sent me the extra copy! To this day this print acts as a focal point for my flat.
  • At Science Online London 2011, which took place at the British Library, I took a photo of Michael Nielsen. The photo was subsequently published by the New York Times, with Michael Nielsen letting me know that this had happened.
  • More recently, I was contacted by Nature Cymru who wanted to let me know that they had used one of my photos in their latest edition – a picture of seagulls nesting in Conwy Castle. I uploaded this photo as part of a series of photos I took of Conwy Castle, and this was the photo I expected to be of least use – but it turned out to be the first of this set of photos to be reused.

Seagulls nesting at Conwy Castle

One of the lessons I’ve learnt throughout this is that, realistically, no-one respects the licence that your photo is licensed under – they’ll simply use it for their purposes. If you try to keep full copyright of your photo and deny people the use of the image, then you’ll be ignored – but if you release it under a free license then you’ll be able to reasonably ask for proper attribution. Also, people will generally go out of their way to let you know that they are using your image under a free license, if you ask them to, but if you restrict the use of the image then they’ll simply use it without letting you know.

Time for a new website!

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this website – too long! So, welcome to the new version of my website. :-)

You might notice that I’ve switched from using MediaWiki to WordPress. Sadly, it seems that MediaWiki isn’t the best software to use for a personal website – it seems that it’s too easy for spammers to attack, and a bit too cumbersome to administer. WordPress has been making great improvements since I started having this website (now over a decade ago!), hence why I’m now giving it a go as my main website rather than just as a blog. The main thing I’m worried about by doing this is the lack of integration with Wikimedia Commons (which was via InstantCommons on the old MediaWiki website) – it will be interesting to see how well WordPress will cope with embedding content from Commons here…

If you spot any bugs, or can’t find anything that used to be here, then please comment below so that I know about it and can fix it! Note that it may take a while for the DNS to update from the old server to this new one, so you may still see my old website randomly for a while… This site will hopefully be available at rather than my backup domain in the very near future…

Science Hack Day – co-author cloud, lookUP images from Wikipedia, and more

Right now, a really cool event is happening at the Guardian in London – Science Hack Day. The basic premise is: get a load of science geeks* together in the same room, give them food and internet access, and see what they create. The official catchphrase is “Get excited and make things … with science!” I had been hoping to go along to the event, but in the end I found that I couldn’t find the energy to face Virgin Trains or have a very tiring weekend in between tiring weeks, so in the end I decided to watch from afar.

The first hacks are now being shared with the world, and I want to highlight two of them – hence this blog post.

Carolina Ödman and Stuart Lowe have created the “Co-Author Cloud” – essentially a tag cloud for who you’ve written papers with, but much nicer than most tag clouds – this one comes with extra swirly-ness! Here’s my little one (it is slowly growing over time…)

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The second one of them is lookUP. This is a great tool that Stuart Lowe’s been developing for some time now. It takes the name of an astronomical object, and looks it up in various online catalogues and databases to find out what it is. For most objects, it looks up the picture in WikiSky, but it can’t do that for objects that move around the sky – e.g. planets. Stuart’s modified it this weekend so that it looks up the planet on Wikipedia, and returns an image from there – see Ceres as an example. There’s a slight bug for high-resolution images – it uses the full resolution version rather than rescaling it, so Saturn is currently very slow – but I’m sure that Stuart will fix this soon.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of the outcomes of Science Hack Day! To hear what’s going on, follow @sciencehackday or the hashtag #scihack.

* Geeks in a good way, of course.

Intelligent life: does it exist?

The Independent published an article yesterday about “Seti: The hunt for ET”, in the form of a bullet point list of 50 items. There are a lot of gems this article – it’s well worth reading (and then checking Wikipedia for the complete story in each case). I couldn’t resist drawing attention to, and commenting on, some of them though – hence this blog post in addition to my twitter.

33. In the mid-1990s, Seti scientists thought they were on to something when they picked up a signal every evening at 7pm. It turned out to be from a microwave oven used by technicians in the cellar at the Parkes Observatory in Australia. There is now a note on the microwave asking people not to use it while Seti is active.’

This is one of those great stories that mixes the trivial with the extraordinary, which happens so often in radio astronomy (and presumably in science in general). I could imagine an abbreviated conversation about this going like: “Wow – we’ve detected aliens!”, “Yes – they work downstairs.”

34. Other false calls have included signals from electronic garage doors, jet airliners, radios, televisions and even the Pioneer space craft. “We found intelligent life,” said Richard Davis, a radio astronomer at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, “but it was us.”‘

I’m not sure that I agree with this assessment – intelligent life exists on Earth? Is that the all-pervasive silicon lifeform that’s been spreading over the planet for the last 70 years or so? If so, that might explain why no communication attempts from ET have been detected – they’ve been identified as DDOS attacks and blocked. ;-)

The oddest one is:

12. The most promising radio signal found to date, SHGb02+14a, was detected in 2003 at Arecibo. It was found on three occasions but emanates from between the constellations of Pisces and Aries where there are no stars. It is also a very weak signal. Scientists think it may have been due to an astrological phenomenon or a computer glitch.’

Why is that odd? What have “astrological phenomenon” got to do with science? Do they even exist (except in the mental constructs of humans)? Perhaps they meant “astronomical phenomenon”, which is something completely different? (Thanks to Stuart for pointing this out – until then I was in blissful ignorance…)


5. So far, no alien signals have been heard, however.”

Planck and Herschel launched!

5 seconds to launch!
Five seconds to launch!

Planck and Herschel successfully launched today, after 21 and 25 years of development respectively! At Manchester, we had a launch party, with somewhere around 100 people packed into a room watching the live satellite feed. The event was twittered live, and we had a screen at the front showing live Twitter comments from people around the world about the launch.

Planck will be mapping the Cosmic Microwave Background – similar to how it has already been mapped by WMAP and COBE, but at a much higher resolution and accuracy. It will be observing the oldest radiation in the universe, and probing back to the very beginnings of the universe. Herschel will be observing at far infrared and submillimeter wavelengths, looking at the evolution of gas to form stars and galaxies.

The Planck group at Jodrell
The Planck group at Manchester

Lots of people at Jodrell have been involved with the creation of Planck – ranging from the creation of the world’s best low noise amplifiers for the instrument, to testing Planck and making sure that it’s ready for observations – and in the future will be analysing its data and producing cosmology from it.

Congratulations to all involved with the design, creation and launch of these two spacecraft! The Universe awaits your observations…


The STEREO spacecraft. CREDIT: NASA, via Wikipedia
The STEREO spacecraft. CREDIT: NASA, via Wikipedia

I have to confess, it’s been a while since I’ve actually sat down with a pen and paper during a lecture and taken down notes. I don’t normally need to – I hopefully absorb the important things, and the details aren’t quite as important to remember as they can normally be found in papers. This time, however, I wanted to put summaries on here, so thus far I’ve taken around 8 pages worth… Now I just have to work out what to say here.

The most interesting talk I’ve been to so far from the point of view of learning the most was the plenary talk on STEREO yesterday morning. The sun is definitely not my field (way too local), although I’ve looked at it a few times through a solar telescope, so I was mostly relying on my knowledge from undergraduate and a few extra talks. STEREO, as the name might suggest, is actually two satellites, both going away from the earth but in opposite directions, giving us a 3D view of the sun. It also gives us a view of the Earth-Sun line – which you normally look down, rather than across. That means that we can see coronal mass ejections coming towards us, and gain up to 2 days of advanced notice – very important, considering the impact that these have on satellites and the Earth in general. The first Earth-impacting one of these was actually seen – from both sides – in the middle of December 2008! This wasn’t seen at all by Earth-based instruments. STEREO has also seen other cool things, including the stripping of a comet’s tail by a coronal mass ejection. More info on STEREO is on Wikipedia.

More coming when I get the time…


So… it’s probably about time I started using this blog properly. :-)

Music and Astronomy event at JENAM 2009
Music and Astronomy event at JENAM 2009

I’m currently at JENAM, which is a combination of the Royal Astronomical Society’s Annual General Meeting and the Joint European and National Astronomy Meeting. It’s based at The University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield. Its starting event was a buffet (free food and drinks; always good), followed by a Music and Astronomy event. Although I was a bit dubious going in, this turned out to be quite a good event – classical music combined with an overview of the history of the relationship between music and astronomy (the two are linked by a surprising number of things). Hopefully the image on the right gives a flavour of the event: strings on the left (with a piano on the far left; sadly I couldn’t get this in as well), with two speakers on the right and Jon Culshaw in the middle interjecting quotes in the style of various famous people (Sir Patrick Moore, George Brown, George Bush, …).

The speakers (and percussionist) at the Music and Astronomy event at JENAM
The speakers (and percussionist) at the Music and Astronomy event at JENAM

On the left are the people leading the evening: the right-most two are Alice Williamson and Dr. Robert Priddey, who were narrating the event, and that’s Jon again second from the left. I think the telescope is a likeness of the one Gallileo used (not the real one; that’s apparently in philladelphia).

Tomorrow the real work begins – 8 or 9 parallel presentation sessions from 9am to 6pm, packed full with lots of science. Should be fun. I’ll be trying to twitter throughout, although the lack of mains sockets in at least the main hall will probably hamper me (my battery life isn’t what it used to be…). It’s obviously impossible to go to all the talks, so I’ll be focusing on cosmology and galaxy clusters, perhaps with some radio astronomy mixed in. :)

BTW, Dr. Mario M. Bisi has also covered this event, and will presumably be blogging about the rest of the conference too from a solar physics perspective. Is there anyone else blogging this too?

Spherical Cows

There’s a classic joke in physics, which according to Wikipedia goes like this:

Milk production at a dairy farm was low so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the farmer received the write-up, and opened it to read on the first line: “Consider a spherical cow…”

This was the first thing that sprang to mind* after reading the excellently named Cosmic Variance’s recent post “Blogs That Should Exist“. “Spherical Cow” could have been an excellent name for a blog, and I was very tempted to rename this fledging blog as such. Tragically, the .com address is already registered, but is completely unused! The .net domain – the second choice for a top-level domain on the internet – is also registered, but at least that’s used for physics education (albeit underused).

So, at least for now I’ll stick with using my real name as the name of the blog (assuming I end up writing enough for this to count as a proper blog). For those of you that want a physics or astronomy blog but don’t want to use your real name, here’s a few suggestions**. Note that I haven’t googled them, so some (or even all) may already exist.

  • Heisenberg’s Uncertainty
  • Big Crunch (perfect for these apparently uncertain times)
  • Cosmic Dust
  • Inflationary Times
  • The Galactic Bar
  • Spinning Science

Or, if nothing appeals, make up something with an “X” in the name. That always seems to go down well.

* although perhaps “Spherical Moose” should have sprung to mind, considering I’ve spent the evening watching Northern Exposure whilst making pretty plots for a paper

** No guarantees as to their originality or humour are made. They might not even make sense.

Cold Tea Syndrome

Symptoms: Your cups of tea go cold before you finish drinking them.

Possible causes: overwork, distractedness, or living in Siberia / the Antarctic / the Arctic etc.

Solutions: Focus more on drinking tea, less on doing anything else at the same time. Tea is important! Alternatively, devote effort into proving the second law of thermodynamics wrong, thus allowing the creation of a perpetually re-heating cup of tea.